1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cabinet

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761301911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 4 — CabinetJames George Joseph Penderel-Brodhurst

CABINET, a word with various applications which may be traced to two principal meanings, (1) a small private chamber, and (2) an article of furniture containing compartments formed of drawers, shelves, &c. The word is a diminutive of “cabin” and therefore properly means a small hut or shelter. This meaning is now obsolete; the New English Dictionary quotes from Leonard Digges’s Stratioticos (published with additions by his son Thomas in 1579), “the Lance Knights encamp always in the field very strongly, two or three to a Cabbonet.” From the use both of the article of furniture and of a small chamber for the safe-keeping of a collection of valuable prints, pictures, medals or other objects, the word is frequently applied to such a collection or to objects fit for such safe-keeping. The name of Cabinet du Roi was given to the collection of prints prepared by the best artists of the 17th century by order of Louis XIV. These were intended to commemorate the chief events of his reign, and also to reproduce the paintings and sculptures and other art treasures contained in the royal palaces. It was begun in 1667 and was placed under the superintendence of Nicholas Clement (1647 or 1651–1712), the royal librarian. The collection was published in 1727. The plates are now in the Louvre. A “cabinet” edition of a literary work is one of somewhat small size, and bound in such a way as would suit a tasteful collection. The term is applied also to a size of photograph of a larger size than the carte de visite but smaller than the “panel.” The political use of the term is derived from the private chamber of the sovereign or head of a state in which his advisers met.

Cabinet in Furniture.—The artificer who constructs furniture is still called a “cabinet-maker,” although the manufacture of cabinets, properly so called, is now a very occasional part of his work. Cabinets can be divided into a very large number of classes according to their shape, style, period and country of origin; but their usual characteristic is that they are supported upon a stand, and that they contain a series of drawers and pigeon-holes. The name is, however, now given to many pieces of furniture for the safe-keeping or exhibition of valuable objects, which really answer very little to the old conception of a cabinet. The cabinet represented an evolution brought about by the necessities of convenience, and it appealed to so many tastes and needs that it rapidly became universal in the houses of the gentle classes, and in great measure took the impress of the peoples who adopted it. It would appear to have originated in Italy, probably at the very beginning of the 16th century. In its rudimentary form it was little more than an oblong box, with or without feet, small enough to stand upon a table or chair, filled with drawers and closed with doors. In this early form its restricted dimensions permitted of its use only for the safeguard of jewels, precious stones and sometimes money. One of the earliest cabinets of which we have mention belonged to Francis I. of France, and is described as covered with gilt leather, tooled with mauresque work. As the Renaissance became general these early forms gave place to larger, more elaborate and more architectural efforts, until the cabinet became one of the most sumptuous of household adornments. It was natural that the countries which were earliest and most deeply touched by the Renaissance should excel in the designing of these noble and costly pieces of furniture. The cabinets of Italy, France and the Netherlands were especially rich and monumental. Those of Italy and Flanders are often of great magnificence and of real artistic skill, though like all other furniture their style was often grievously debased, and their details incongruous and bizarre. Flanders and Burgundy were, indeed, their lands of adoption, and Antwerp added to its renown as a metropolis of art by developing consummate skill in their manufacture and adornment. The cost and importance of the finer types have ensured the preservation of innumerable examples of all but the very earliest periods; and the student never ceases to be impressed by the extraordinary variety of the work of the 16th and 17th centuries, and very often of the 18th also. The basis of the cabinet has always been wood, carved, polished or inlaid; but lavish use has been made of ivory, tortoise-shell, and those cut and polished precious stones which the Italians call pietra dura. In the great Flemish period of the 17th century the doors and drawers of cabinets were often painted with classical or mythological scenes. Many French and Florentine cabinets were also painted. In many classes the drawers and pigeon-holes are enclosed by folding doors, carved or inlaid, and often painted on the inner sides. Perhaps the most favourite type during a great part of the 16th and 17th centuries—a type which grew so common that it became cosmopolitan—was characterized by a conceit which acquired astonishing popularity. When the folding doors are opened there is disclosed in the centre of the cabinet a tiny but palatial interior. Floored with alternate squares of ebony and ivory to imitate a black and white marble pavement, adorned with Corinthian columns or pilasters, and surrounded by mirrors, the effect, if occasionally affected and artificial, is quite as often exquisite. Although cabinets have been produced in England in considerable variety, and sometimes of very elegant and graceful form, the foreign makers on the whole produced the most elaborate and monumental examples. As we have said, Italy and the Netherlands acquired especial distinction in this kind of work. In France, which has always enjoyed a peculiar genius for assimilating modes in furniture, Flemish cabinets were so greatly in demand that Henry IV. determined to establish the industry in his own dominions. He therefore sent French workmen to the Low Countries to acquire the art of making cabinets, and especially those which were largely constructed of ebony and ivory. Among these workmen were Jean Macé and Pierre Boulle, a member of a family which was destined to acquire something approaching immortality. Many of the Flemish cabinets so called, which were in such high favour in France and also in England, were really armoires consisting of two bodies superimposed, whereas the cabinet proper does not reach to the floor. Pillared and fluted, with panelled sides, and front elaborately carved with masks and human figures, these pieces which were most often in oak were exceedingly harmonious and balanced. Long before this, however, France had its own school of makers of cabinets, and some of their carved work was of the most admirable character. At a somewhat later date André Charles Boulle made many pieces to which the name of cabinet has been more or less loosely given. They were usually of massive proportions and of extreme elaboration of marquetry. The North Italian cabinets, and especially those which were made or influenced by the Florentine school, were grandiose and often gloomy. Conceived on a palatial scale, painted or carved, or incrusted with marble and pietra dura, they were intended for the adornment of galleries and lofty bare apartments where they were not felt to be overpowering. These North Italian cabinets were often covered with intarsia or marquetry, which by its subdued gaiety retrieved somewhat their heavy stateliness of form. It is, however, often difficult to ascribe a particular fashion of shape or of workmanship to a given country, since the interchange of ideas and the imports of actual pieces caused a rapid assimilation which destroyed frontiers. The close connexion of centuries between Spain and the Netherlands, for instance, led to the production north and south of work that was not definitely characteristic of either. Spain, however, was more closely influenced than the Low Countries, and contains to this day numbers of cabinets which are not easily to be distinguished from the characteristic ebony, ivory and tortoise-shell work of the craftsmen whose skill was so rapidly acquired by the emissaries of Henry IV. The cabinets of southern Germany were much influenced by the models of northern Italy, but retained to a late date some of the characteristics of domestic Gothic work such as elaborately fashioned wrought-iron handles and polished steel hinges. Often, indeed, 17th-century South Germany work is a curious blend of Flemish and Italian ideas executed in oak and Hungarian ash. Such work, however interesting, necessarily lacks simplicity and repose. A curious little detail of Flemish and Italian, and sometimes of French later 17th-century cabinets, is that the interiors of the drawers are often lined with stamped gold or silver paper, or marbled ones somewhat similar to the “end papers” of old books. The great English cabinet-makers of the 18th century were very various in their cabinets, which did not always answer strictly to their name; but as a rule they will not bear comparison with the native work of the preceding century, which was most commonly executed in richly marked walnut, frequently enriched with excellent marquetry of woods. Mahogany was the dominating timber in English furniture from the accession of George II. almost to the time of the Napoleonic wars; but many cabinets were made in lacquer or in the bright-hued foreign woods which did so much to give lightness and grace to the British style. The glass-fronted cabinet for China or glass was in high favour in the Georgian period, and for pieces of that type, for which massiveness would have been inappropriate, satin and tulip woods, and other timbers with a handsome grain taking a high polish were much used.  (J. P.-B.) 

The Political Cabinet.—Among English political institutions, the “Cabinet” is a conventional but not a legal term employed to describe those members of the privy council who fill the highest executive offices in the state, and by their concerted policy direct the government, and are responsible for all the acts of the crown. The cabinet now always includes the persons filling the following offices, who are therefore called “cabinet ministers,” viz.:—the first lord of the treasury, the lord chancellor of England, the lord president of the council, the lord privy seal, the five secretaries of state, the chancellor of the exchequer and the first lord of the admiralty. The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, the postmaster-general, the first commissioner of works, the president of the board of trade, the chief secretary for Ireland, the lord chancellor of Ireland, the president of the local government board, the president of the board of agriculture, and the president of the board of education, are usually members of the cabinet, but not necessarily so. A modern cabinet contains from sixteen to twenty members. It used to be said that a large cabinet is an evil; and the increase in its numbers in recent years has often been criticized. But the modern widening of the franchise has tended to give the cabinet the character of an executive committee for the party in power, no less than that of the prime-minister’s consultative committee, and to make such a committee representative it is necessary to include the holders of all the more important offices in the administration, who are generally selected as the influential politicians of the party rather than for special aptitude in the work of the departments.

The word “cabinet,” or “cabinet council,” was originally employed as a term of reproach. Thus Lord Bacon says, in his essay Of Counsel (xx.), “The doctrine of Italy and practice of France, in some kings' times, hath introduced cabinet councils—a remedy worse than the disease”; and, again, “As for cabinet councils, it may be their motto Plenus rimarum sum.” Lord Clarendon—after stating that, in 1640, when the great Council of Peers was convened by the king at York, the burden of affairs rested principally on Laud, Strafford and Cottington, with five or six others added to them on account of their official position and ability—adds, “These persons made up the committee of state, which was reproachfully after called the Juncto, and enviously then in court the Cabinet Council.” And in the Second Remonstrance in January 1642, parliament complained “of the managing of the great affairs of the realm in Cabinet Councils by men unknown and not publicly trusted.” But this use of the term, though historically curious, has in truth nothing in common with the modern application of it. It meant, at that time, the employment of a select body of favourites by the king, who were supposed to possess a larger share of his confidence than the privy council at large. Under the Tudors, at least from the later years of Henry VIII. and under the Stuarts, the privy council was the council of state or government. During the Commonwealth it assumed that name.

The Cabinet Council, properly so called, dates from the reign of William III. and from the year 1693, for it was not until some years after the Revolution that the king discovered and adopted the two fundamental principles of a constitutional executive government, namely, that a ministry should consist of statesmen holding the same political principles and identified with each other; and, secondly, that the ministry should stand upon a parliamentary basis, that is, that it must command and retain the majority of votes in the legislature. It was long before these principles were thoroughly worked out and understood, and the perfection to which they have been brought in modern times is the result of time, experience and in part of accident. But the result is that the cabinet council for the time being is the government of Great Britain; that all the powers vested in the sovereign (with one or two exceptions) are practically exercised by the members of this body; that all the members of the cabinet are jointly and severally responsible for all its measures, for if differences of opinion arise their existence is unknown as long as the cabinet lasts—when publicly manifested the cabinet is at an end; and lastly, that the cabinet, being responsible to the sovereign for the conduct of executive business, is also collectively responsible to parliament both for its executive conduct and for its legislative measures, the same men being as members of the cabinet the servants of the crown, and as members of parliament and leaders of the majority responsible to those who support them by their votes and may challenge in debate every one of their actions. In this latter sense the cabinet has sometimes been described as a standing committee of both Houses of Parliament.

One of the consequences of the close connexion of the cabinet with the legislature is that it is desirable to divide the strength of the ministry between the two Houses of Parliament. Pitt’s cabinet of 1783 consisted of himself in the House of Commons and seven peers. But so aristocratic a government would now be impracticable. In Gladstone’s cabinet of 1868, eight, and afterwards nine, ministers were in the House of Commons and six in the House of Lords. Great efforts were made to strengthen the ministerial bench in the Commons, and a new principle was introduced, that the representatives of what are called the spending departments—that is, the secretary of state for war and the first lord of the admiralty—should, if possible, be members of the House which votes the supplies. Disraeli followed this precedent but it has since been disregarded. In Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman’s cabinet formed in 1905, six ministers were in the House of Lords and thirteen in the House of Commons.

Cabinets are usually convoked by a summons addressed to “His Majesty’s confidential servants” by the prime minister; and the ordinary place of meeting is either at the official residence of the first lord of the treasury in Downing Street or at the foreign office, but they may be held anywhere. No secretary or other officer is present at the deliberations of this council. No official record is kept of its proceedings, and it is even considered a breach of ministerial confidence to keep a private record of what passed in the cabinet, inasmuch as such memoranda may fall into other hands. But on some important occasions, as is known from the Memoirs of Lord Sidmouth, the Correspondence of Earl Grey with King William IV., and from Sir Robert Peel’s Memoirs, published by permission of Queen Victoria, cabinet minutes are drawn up and submitted to the sovereign, as the most formal manner in which the advice of the ministry can be tendered to the crown and placed upon record. (See also Sir Algernon West’s Recollections, 1899.) More commonly, it is the duty of the prime minister to lay the collective opinion of his colleagues before the sovereign, and take his pleasure on public measures and appointments. The sovereign never presides at a cabinet; and at the meetings of the privy council, where the sovereign does preside, the business is purely formal. It has been laid down by some writers as a principle of the British constitution that the sovereign is never present at a discussion between the advisers of the crown; and this is, no doubt, an established fact and practice. But like many other political usages of Great Britain it originated in a happy accident.

King William and Queen Anne always presided at weekly cabinet councils. But when the Hanoverian princes ascended the throne, they knew no English, and were barely able to converse at all with their ministers; for George I. or George II. to take part in, or even to listen to, a debate in council was impossible. When George III. mounted the throne the practice of the independent deliberations of the cabinet was well established, and it has never been departed from.

Upon the resignation or dissolution of a ministry, the sovereign exercises the undoubted prerogative of selecting the person who may be thought by him most fit to form a new cabinet. In several instances the statesmen selected by the crown have found themselves unable to accomplish the task confided to them. But in more favourable cases the minister chosen for this supreme office by the crown has the power of distributing all the political offices of the government as may seem best to himself, subject only to the ultimate approval of the sovereign. The prime minister is therefore in reality the author and constructor of the cabinet; he holds it together; and in the event of his retirement, from whatever cause, the cabinet is really dissolved, even though its members are again united under another head.

Authorities.—Sir W. Anson, Law and Custom of the Constitution (1896); W. Bagehot, The English Constitution; M. T. Blauvelt, The Development of Cabinet Government in England (New York, 1902); E. Boutmy, The English Constitution (trans. I. M. Eaden, 1891); A. Lawrence Lowell, The Government of England (1908), part I.; A. V. Dicey, Law of the Constitution (1902); Sir T. Erskine May, Constitutional History of England (1863–1865); H. Hallam, Constitutional History of England; W. E. Hearn, The Government of England (1867); S. Low, The Governance of England (1904); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England; Hannis Taylor, Origin and Growth of the English Constitution (Boston, 1889–1900); A. Todd, Parliamentary Government in England (1867–1869); much valuable information will also be found in such works as W. E. Gladstone’s Gleanings; the third earl of Malmesbury’s Memoirs of an ex-Minister (1884–1885); Greville’s Memoirs; Sir A. West’s Recollections, 1832–1886 (1889), &c.